Hopes have been raised that the UK could produce a successful coronavirus vaccine after data from the University of Oxford showed its jab provokes a strong immune response in older people.
The ChAdOx1 nCov-2019 vaccine, developed with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, has been shown to trigger a robust immune response in healthy adults aged 56-69 and people over 70.
Phase two data, published in The Lancet, suggests one of the groups most vulnerable to serious illness and death from Covid-19 could build immunity, researchers say.
According to the researchers, volunteers in the trial demonstrated similar immune responses across all three age groups (18-55, 56-69, and 70 and over).
The study of 560 healthy adults – including 240 over the age of 70 – found the vaccine is better tolerated in older people compared with younger adults.
Volunteers received two doses of the vaccine candidate, or a placebo meningitis vaccine.
No serious adverse health events related to the vaccine were seen in the participants.
The early results are consistent with phase one data reported for healthy adults aged 18-55 earlier this year.
Dr Maheshi Ramasamy, investigator at the Oxford Vaccine Group and consultant physician, said: “Older adults are a priority group for Covid-19 vaccination, because they are at increased risk of severe disease, but we know that they tend to have poorer vaccine responses.
“We were pleased to see that our vaccine was not only well tolerated in older adults, but also stimulated similar immune responses to those seen in younger volunteers.
“The next step will be to see if this translates into protection from the disease itself.”
Sarah Gilbert, lead researcher of the vaccine development programme and professor of vaccinology at University of Oxford, said she is hopeful that people will not need to be vaccinated more than once a year.
“What we don’t know yet is whether the very good immune responses that we’re seeing in the older people will be maintained as long as they are in younger people,” she said.
“We didn’t see such good maintenance responses in the small early flu study, but that was after a single vaccination and now we’re looking at giving people two vaccines, and then we’ll see how well those responses are maintained.
“What this could mean is that in the future when we’re looking to boost people’s responses, we might need to do it more often with older people than we do with younger people.
“But we’re not thinking that we’re going to need to boost people more often than once a year as we do with a flu vaccine.
“What may happen is in younger people they don’t need to boost for significantly longer because the responses are maintained better – still needing to collect all the data on that though.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted: “There is still much work to be done, but this is a really encouraging set of findings from the @UniofOxford and @AstraZeneca vaccine.”
Study lead author Professor Andrew Pollard, from the University of Oxford, said he was “really delighted with the latest trial results which suggest a strong immune response in older adults.
“These first data are really encouraging, showing that we are getting very good immune responses, even in the over 70s, which looked very similar to those in younger adults.
“The other really important finding is that it’s much better tolerated as you get older.”
Prof Pollard said the researchers were “very excited” by the findings because if they translate into protection they might be “hopeful that we’ve got similar levels of protection in different ages”.
Speaking about when results indicating whether the vaccine works will be published, Prof Pollard said he is hopeful it will be before the end of the year.
He explained: “We’re still waiting to get to the point where we can do the analysis to just work out how well the vaccine can protect people.
“We are optimistic that we’ll be able to do that before Christmas.”
Researchers say their findings are promising as they show that older people are showing a similar immune response to younger adults.
Dr Ramasamy added: “The robust antibody and T-cell responses seen in older people in our study are encouraging.
“The populations at greatest risk of serious Covid-19 disease include people with existing health conditions and older adults.
“We hope that this means our vaccine will help to protect some of the most vulnerable people in society, but further research will be needed before we can be sure.”
The study also found the vaccine was less likely to cause local reactions at the injection site and symptoms on the day of vaccination in older adults than in the younger group.
Adverse reactions were mild – injection-site pain and tenderness, fatigue, headache, feverishness and muscle pain – but more common than seen with the control vaccine.
Thirteen serious adverse events occurred in the six months since the first dose was given, none of which were related to either study vaccine.
The authors note some limitations to their study, including that the participants in the oldest age group had an average age of 73-74 and few underlying health conditions, so they may not be representative of the general older population, including those living in residential care settings or aged over 80.
Phase three trials of the vaccine are ongoing, with early efficacy readings possible in the coming weeks.
UK authorities have placed orders for 100 million doses of the vaccine – enough to vaccinate most of the population – should it receive regulatory approval.
The Oxford findings come after Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their vaccine candidate has shown 95% efficacy, with a 94% effectiveness in those aged 65 and over.
Forty million doses of that vaccine have been bought by the UK, with rollout potentially starting in early December if the jab is given the green light by regulators.
Earlier in the week US biotech firm Moderna released data suggesting its vaccine is almost almost 95% effective.